The Sixth and Seventh Concerts of the Russian Musical Society

The Sixth and Seventh Concerts of the Russian Musical Society (Шестой и седьмой концерты Русского музыкального общества) [1] (TH 300 ; ČW 565) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-fifth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 19 January 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains a lengthy and witty tirade against the unscrupulous methods used by the management of the Italian Opera Company to try to further its ends; disparaging remarks about Brahms as a "mediocrity" unworthy of the veneration in which he was held by some German critics (thus essentially repeating what Tchaikovsky had already said in TH 268); a remarkable discussion of Mozart's "Jupiter Symphony" as "one of the wonders of symphonic music" where the outstanding fugal development in the finale revealed the composer's "polyphonic genius" and whose overall grandeur put to shame all contemporary composers who relied on much larger orchestras and fanciful instruments for special effects; yet another positive appraisal of Adolph Brodsky's violin playing; an interesting and balanced discussion of Balakirev's Second Overture on Russian Themes; brief remarks in passing about Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony; and a highly enthusiastic review of Sergey Taneyev's first public performance, though avoiding a discussion of the actual work played by the young pianist—Brahms's First Piano Concerto—perhaps because Tchaikovsky had recently suffered the bitter blow of seeing the score of his own Piano Concerto No. 1 sharply criticized by Nikolay Rubinstein.

History

Completed by 19/31 January 1875 (date of publication). Reviewing the Russian Musical Society's sixth symphony concert in Moscow on 10/22 January 1875, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C major, KV 551 ("Jupiter Symphony"), Robert Volkmann's Serenade for Strings No. 2 in F major, Op. 63, and Vieuxtemps's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 (soloist Adolph Brodsky); and the seventh RMS symphony concert in Moscow on 17/29 January 1875, again conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring excerpts from Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, Balakirev's Second Overture on Russian Themes ("A Thousand Years"), Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor ("Unfinished"), and Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (soloist Sergey Taneyev).

English translation

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Will readers believe me if I tell them that an institution like the Imperial Russian Musical Society, which is so serious in its goals and so useful in the influence it has on the aesthetic development of the masses, is completely, albeit only indirectly, dependent on the proprietor of the Italian Opera Company? Now it is well known that this lucky monopolist has under his thumb not just the submissive and meek officials and ushers employed by the theatre management. No, at his disposal he also has a whole legion of signore and signori, who at a wave of his hand are ready to sing and act out anything he may ask them to, and very often even things which they don't know at all, as a result of which, instead of singing properly and in tune, they tend to screech and bawl horrendously, and instead of acting, they do tend rather to pull faces and clown about.

Moreover, our impresario also numbers amongst his servants the male and female chorus singers, who have become dazed and worn-out due to being over-worked, stage-managers, scene-shifters, decorators, costume designers, and property-men, all of whom regularly give up their time, expertise, and talents for the benefit and enrichment of this happy foreigner. But these are not the only forces which this crafty exploiter can draw on unchecked: no, he can also count on an opera orchestra made up of several dozens of experienced and fine musicians, who have been specially earmarked for serving in his Italian enterprise.

Apart from this fine opera orchestra, though, there is also another one, of a somewhat weaker calibre—namely, the ballet orchestra. How enviable is the fate of the musicians who fill its ranks! For they are obliged to give up their evening-hours to the fulfilment of their duties only on those rare days when it doesn't occur to our impresario to schedule, in addition to his four subscription evenings, two extra benefit performances or some special concert [2], in which Madame Strozzi can strew the pearls of her inimitable art before a dumbfounded multitude… of empty chairs and boxes.

In these cases our impresario is behaving like that watchdog in the proverb: "a dog in the manger—he neither eats, nor lets others eat" [3].

And yet, whilst the dog is barking and jealously protecting its feeding bowl, Madame Sobeshchanskaya [4] and a whole swarm of our ballerinas are putting on weight from lack of exercise; the decorators are losing their inventive faculties and imagination due to idleness; and our Russian singers are languishing, pining away, and becoming hoarse as they take walks even in frosty weather just to kill time. In this fashion, contrary to the natural and historical law according to which every increase in the prosperity of some must entail the abasement and debilitation of others, the Italian Opera is suffocating and causing the ruin of both the ballet and the Russian Opera, but at the same time it is itself becoming more and more insolvent with every passing day, not just as an artistic institution but also as a commercial venture.

One cannot help asking: in which time apart from ours and where else apart from Moscow could such a preposterous state of affairs possibly maintain itself—a state of affairs which goes against even the most elementary demands of common sense?! However, enough of this digression.

So, as I was saying, we have two orchestras: an opera orchestra (which is quite good) and a ballet orchestra (which is less so). The latter, as it is very frequently unengaged, has various opportunities for earning quite a lot of extra money on the side and drags out a comparatively happy existence. The former is almost always occupied full-time at the theatre and values greatly the small fee which it receives for taking part in the concerts of the Russian Musical Society. The Society in its turn prefers to engage the services of the opera orchestra for a very simple reason: namely, the more interest the public shows in the Society's concerts, the greater effort it must put into ensuring that the musicians engaged are of a sufficiently high standard to perform the difficult works which it often selects for its programmes. That is why the Society is forced to wait for those days, propitious both to itself and the public, when out of some whim the impresario has chosen not to schedule a subscription performance, a benefit production, or even a concert.

It so happened that Friday last week was one of these felicitous days. The Musical Society's board of directors had hastened to schedule its sixth symphony concert on that day and drawn up a very interesting and varied programme, featuring amongst other things Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, which I discussed in my previous article [5], and the splendid A Thousand Years overture by Mr Balakirev [6]. On the eve of the first rehearsal, it was suddenly announced that, on the basis of inscrutable considerations as always, it pleased the Mikado of the Opera to have for himself not just the Tuesday which he had already reserved for a benefit performance on behalf of Madame Smeroski, but also to take away Friday's slot from the Musical Society so as to organise a benefit for Signor Rota, if I'm not mistaken.

The Mikado is almighty—it was necessary to bow one's head in submission, and, to avoid having to cancel the concert altogether, the programme had to be altered completely to make it suitable for the ballet orchestra's level of competence. The extraordinarily difficult music of Berlioz was replaced by an easily playable, though still outstanding symphony by Mozart, and instead of the promised overture by a highly talented Russian composer we got a nice and easy string serenade by Volkmann [7].

The ballet orchestra is not as good as the opera orchestra, but nevertheless it does include some fine musicians in its ranks—it is just that they are not used to the symphonic repertoire. Mr Rubinstein is a very good and experienced conductor. In just two rehearsals the whole programme of the concert was studied and practised thoroughly, and everything was ready to be performed in public.

However, on Thursday night the spiteful watchdog stayed to guard its hay only until midnight. After that it got up, growled angrily, and sauntered out of the shed for some unknown reason. At that very instant an emaciated cow which until then had been keeping a respectful distance, lowing mournfully for the delicious fodder it was not being allowed to eat, immediately came into its own and started chewing the hay.

In other words, the scheduled Italian opera production was cancelled, and in its stead it was announced that the Russian Opera Company would be giving a performance of A Life for the Tsar with the ballet orchestra—that very orchestra which for two days in a row had been so conscientiously rehearsing a Mozart symphony and Volkmann's serenade.

What was the Musical Society to do now? Postpone the concert? However, it wouldn't have been right to abuse of the public's forbearance, especially as the latter was already grumbling about the changes to the programme, and, besides, there was no time left to announce such a postponement anyway.

There was only one solution: the opera orchestra was engaged for the concert, an additional rehearsal was fitted in, the works studied and played through again, and thus it was that a way out of this difficult and embarrassing concatenation of circumstances was found. Of course, a double fee had to be paid: one for the ballet orchestra and one for the opera orchestra. Moreover, Mr Rubinstein had to tear himself away from a lot of pressing obligations at the Conservatory where currently the auditions for the second semester are taking place (something that absolutely requires the Conservatory's director to be present). But what does all this matter to the mysterious Mikado of the Opera, whose power knows no limits?

The concert took place, and so did the performance of the Russian Opera, which secured very good takings for the theatre. Now, do you know what the reason for all this chaos was? Why two orchestras rehearsed the programme for one and the same concert, both of which then had to be remunerated by the Russian Musical Society? Why the watchdog finally did spurn all that hay and left it to be eaten by the lean cow?

Well, the explanation for all this is really quite simple. You see, two Italian singers had come to town: Madame Volpini, with her colourless, conventional, and unmusical singing style, and Signor Masini [8], with his wild bellowing of high chest notes, wooden acting, and comic gait. Our worthy impresario scented an opportunity for making a quick profit by means of squeezing in an extra performance with these jaded exponents of the Italian art of singing, and so he immediately came up with a benefit production supposedly on behalf of Signor Rota.

However, our impresario's sense of smell has long since deteriorated sharply—here it failed him completely. The influx of banknotes attracted by the name of Madame Volpini proved to be so meagre that Signor Rota faced the prospect of being left out of pocket for quite a while [9]. The impresario took pity on him, and that is why the lean cow finally did get to eat its hay.

What will our descendants think of our city and of our times if at some point in the future, whilst unfolding out of curiosity the rolls of the history of Russian art, they stumble upon the above faithful account of the trials and tribulations faced by an institution which is useful, meaningful, and answers the aesthetic needs of society, when it conscientiously seeks to fulfil its public service to art? Into whose hands was this institution delivered by the existing state of affairs? From where and from which part do all these hindrances and difficulties arise? On what grounds is this systematic humiliation of whatever is good, useful, and valuable in the field of our art allowed to take place and benefit everything that is banal, senseless, and harmful? Whom does this serve? Who profits by all this? What is the secret meaning lurking behind all this?

Our curious descendants will ponder on this, weigh all the facts up, and finally turn away in bewilderment from the obnoxious spectacle presented by this particular moment in the history of our art which well and truly deserves to sink into oblivion. I, too, shall turn away from it in order to move on to a report on what we heard at the last two symphony concerts of the Russian Musical Society.

Volkmann's Serenade for Strings is a very uncomplicated little piece, which does not strive after dazzling effect, but it is nevertheless very nice and elegant in terms of its main motifs and its accomplished form. The second movement is particularly good: it is based on a quick and lively motif, which nevertheless has a touch of melancholy about it and is harmonized in an incredibly simple, albeit quite original, manner. The third movement with its waltz rhythm is not bad either: it is pervaded by genuine gracefulness and warmth of feeling. Indeed, Volkmann is probably the most appealing of all contemporary German composers—he is an artist with his own distinctive physiognomy and individuality, who does not content himself with constantly repeating and imitating the devices of Mendelssohn and Schumann. He is undoubtedly more gifted than the ever so celebrated Brahms, whom some people in Germany are now trying to put on a pedestal which does not at all correspond to his mediocre talent! [10]

Mozart's Jupiter Symphony is one of the wonders of symphonic music, especially thanks to the Finale, where the polyphonic genius of the great master, who possessed the ability to construct colossal edifices from the most insignificant material, manifests itself in all its unfathomable strength. It is remarkable that in spite of the most intricate contrapuntal combinations, the most extensive symphonic development of themes, and an inexhaustible wealth of effects of contrast which keep following on from one another, Mozart makes do in this symphony with an orchestra of incredibly modest proportions. Mozart's symphony orchestra is half the size of ours in terms of the number of instruments it is made up of, and yet, thanks to his mastery and the power of his creative gift, he attains a strength which our contemporary orchestras, with all their hordes of trumpets, cornets, trombones, ophicleides [11], and bombardons [12], can simply just not compare with.

The soloist at this concert was the violinist Mr Brodsky, who last year made such a successful start to his career in Moscow [13]. This congenial young artist now treated us to a stunning performance of Vieuxtemps's wondrously effective and beautiful Fourth Violin Concerto. Mr Brodsky is fully endowed with all the qualities that are essential in a brilliant virtuoso performance. In addition to a highly developed technique, he is able to elicit from his violin a strong and beautiful sound, and his playing is distinguished by a sense of measure, expressivity, and radiance. One cannot fail to be delighted that this talented violinist has chosen Moscow as his place of residence, and all the more so at a time when we have had to endure such a cruel, though I hope but temporary loss after the departure of Mr Laub [14]. Even if Messrs Hřímalý and Brodsky cannot yet quite replace Mr Laub in our hearts, it is nevertheless at least so that, thanks to their high artistic merits, we can feel the loss of that great virtuoso far less keenly.

At the seventh symphony concert, which the impresario of the Italian Opera Company, in his boundless generosity, allowed to take place without any particular obstacles, we again heard Berlioz's Faust music, as well as Mr Balakirev's overture A Thousand Years, the two movements from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and a piano concerto by Brahms, with Mr Taneyev as soloist.

It is not the first time that Balakirev's overture has been played for us here. I have never been able to understand whether the music of this symphonic work has any intrinsic relation at all to Russian history, and whether the overture's individual episodes are meant to serve as a musical illustration of the various epochs in the thousand-year-old history of our fatherland; but what I do know for certain is that from a purely musical point of view it is magnificent. Mr Balakirev's themes—of which he has borrowed three from the songs of our people [15], whereas the fourth is of his own invention—are beautiful as such, but, thanks to their very rich and comprehensive elaboration by the composer, they take on a high artistic interest.

If there is something for which one could fault Mr Balakirev, that is his insufficient organic unity of form. His overture consists of a long sequence of separate episodes which are not always successfully pasted together, and which come across as far too disparate relative to one another. The ending is particularly unsatisfying, for it appears quite unexpectedly and arbitrarily, rather like putting a full stop by mistake instead of a comma. But on the other hand, the individual parts of the work are endlessly rich in melodic and harmonic beauties, and their orchestration is also extraordinarily brilliant.

I have already spoken on one occasion about the two movements of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony [16]. They are remarkable for the charm of the principal themes and the incredible plasticity of the way in which they are exposed.

The interest generated by this concert was heightened further still by the first public performance of the young pianist Mr Taneyev, a pupil of N. G. Rubinstein. Mr Taneyev justified in a truly brilliant manner the expectations of the Conservatory where he was educated, as well as the rumours about his extraordinary talent which had been circulating for a long time in musical circles.

In addition to the precision and strength of his technique, in addition to elegance of tone and a graceful fluency in the execution of passages, Mr Taneyev astonished everyone by a maturity of understanding, self-command, and calm objectivity in conveying the underlying ideas of the music that are quite truly incredible for an artist so young. Having been equipped by his teacher with the splendid weapons of piano virtuosity, Mr Taneyev nevertheless proved himself to be not at all a mere copy of his paragon, but an independent artistic individuality in his own right who has made his mark at once and secured a firm place amongst our pianists. If Mr Taneyev can always find that moral support which is necessary for the further development of his huge talent, then one can confidently say that his prospects for the future are most splendid indeed [17].

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Sixth and Seventh Concerts of the Russian Musical Society' in TH, and 'The Sixth and Seventh Concerts of the Russian Musical Society' in ČW.
  2. In accordance with the terms of the contract signed by the Imperial Theatres' Directorate with the impresario Eugenio Merelli in 1868 and renewed with his successors as managers of the Italian Opera Company in Moscow, the latter could give performances at the Bolshoi Theatre for a minimum of three (later four) nights a week, meaning that since two nights were normally reserved for ballet and there were no performances on Saturdays, the Russian Opera Company could count at most with one night a week for its productions. However, by announcing extraordinary benefit performances and special concerts, the Italian Company frequently took up the whole week (see TH 294) — translator's note.
  3. In the original Russian: «сидит собака на сене, сама не ест и другим не даёт». As will become clear later on, when Tchaikovsky expands on it, the image behind this proverb is of a watchdog which lies in the hay-rack of a cow-shed, thus preventing the cattle from eating the hay — translator's note (based on The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms).
  4. Anna Osipovna Sobeshchanskaya (1842–1918), Russian ballerina, danced at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre from 1862. On the online archive of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum in Moscow there is a famous photograph of Sobeshchanskaya as Odette at the premiere of Swan Lake in 1877 — note by Ernst Kuhn (supplemented by the translator).
  5. See TH 299 for this review of Berlioz's dramatic legend—a "work of genius" as Tchaikovsky calls it there.
  6. Tchaikovsky is referring to Balakirevv's Second Overture on Russian Themes, written in 1863–64 and published in 1869 as a "musical picture" under the title A Thousand Years (i.e. commemorating the first millennium of Russian history since the rule of the legendary prince Ryurik started in 862). In 1884 the work was revised again and became the 'symphonic poem' Russianote by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Robert Volkmann (1815–1883), German composer whose works were appreciated by Brahms and highly popular with audiences around Europe — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso singing, but notorious for his poor acting. See Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  9. The production costs of benefit performances were supposed to be paid for by the beneficiary, who was then allowed to keep a fixed percentage of the takings — translator's note.
  10. Tchaikovsky never made any secret of his antipathy towards Brahms's music in general (see TH 268 and TH 316) and was even more forthright in his correspondence and especially in his diaries, noting down for instance on 9/21 October 1886: "Just played something by that scoundrel Brahms […] It makes me so mad that this complacent mediocrity is being acknowledged as a genius […] Brahms is just a bundle of chaotic and quite empty straw". However, he did always make an effort to acquaint himself thoroughly with Brahms's music, praising, for example, the instrumentation in the Andante of his String Sextet No. 1 (in TH 268) and referring to him as "a great musician and even a master" in Letter 1427 to Nadezhda von Meck (18 February/1 March 1880), even if in that very same letter he notes how Brahms's music "lacks genuine feeling and poetry" in spite of all its "pretensions to depth". When he met the German composer for the first time, in Leipzig on 8/20 December 1887, Tchaikovsky was greatly impressed by his nobility of character, kindness, and modesty (see TH 316), and in Letter 3655 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (2/14 October 1888) he paid tribute to Brahms's heroic "refusal to make the least concession to Wagnerism which is so rampantly triumphing everywhere". This did not, though, make him change his instinctive attitude to Brahms's music as something that was quite alien to his own nature (as he put it in the above-quoted letter to Nadezhda von Meck), and this rejection of the greatest German composer of the second half of the nineteenth century is one of the mysteries of Tchaikovsky's artistic individuality (see also Marek Bobéth, Čajkovskij und das Mächtige Häuflein (1995), p. 64–66 — translator's note.
  11. Ophicleide: obsolete chromatic wind instrument from the family of brass-keyed bugles — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Bombardon: low-pitched brass instrument from the tuba family — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. See TH 286 for Tchaikovsky's first review of Adolph Brodsky's violin playing.
  14. The notable Czech violinist and teacher Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly, had been forced by illness to retire from his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory in 1874. After an unsuccessful course of treatment at Karlsbad he travelled to the spa of Merano, but died on the way there in March 1875. Tchaikovsky would dedicate his String Quartet No. 3 (1876) to Laub's memory — translator's note.
  15. For the sake of clarity it was felt to be necessary to expand on the original Russian «три заимствованы им у народа»—literally "three were borrowed by him from the people" — translator's note.
  16. Unfortunately, it seems that Tchaikovsky's memory failed him here, for in TH 288, where he reviews a performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 ("The Great") at an earlier concert, he does indeed mention the "Unfinished" symphony, but only to say briefly that it is "delightful". In his articles there is no further discussion of this mysterious and sublime work by Schubert, which it would have been very interesting to see Tchaikovsky discuss in detail — translator's note.
  17. It is quite possible that Tchaikovsky was thinking here of the manifest lack of encouragement he himself had encountered when he played his Piano Concerto No. 1 to Nikolay Rubinstein a few weeks earlier. Likewise, Tchaikovsky's reluctance to discuss the actual music of Brahms's monumental concerto may have to do with the fact that his thoughts were now absorbed in the orchestration of his own first major work for piano and orchestra — translator's note.